First-Hand:Professor Turns 'Expert in Space Communications'

Submitted by Fred J. Tischer

As often happens in academia, the first assignment of my career was that of a teaching assistant while toiling toward my Ph.D. at the University of Prague in Czechoslovakia. It was a shocker.

My task was preparing the experiments in electricity and magnetism shown by our much admired electrical engineering department head during his class. After a few unsuccessful tryouts and letter writing to my predecessor, I realized that deceptive tricks had to be applied to get most of the experiments going. The tricks made them work not the phenomena explained so elaborately and convincingly by the professor in class. This experience was really depressing and disappointing. However, it let me concentrate my job hunting in research and development. I completely disregarded teaching as a career. Research and development thus became the mode of my professional endeavors during the following years.

My “Space adventure.” It was a cold and wintery day in January 1962. I was teaching in the electrical engineering department of Ohio State University (OSU) when I got a call from the University telling me that a representative of NASA wanted to see me.

“Space” was, at that time, a really hot topic. It quickly became a crystallization point attracting outstanding and forward-looking people from all over the country and from abroad. The universities drastically changed their curricula. The industry introduced quality controls, and the reliability of merchandise became an important requirement. The early sixties became a time, during my career, when quality and perfection were really highly appreciated. This trend permeated all aspects of life in the U.S. and it became the intangible basis of successes in the space activities with the landing on the moon as the miraculous climax.

I liked teaching, particularly when talking about my research and about material developed earlier and now reformulated for teaching. The lectures, frequently interspersed with demonstrations, appeared to be well liked. The students at Ohio State University were usually highly motivated and appreciative.

After having received "the great surprise of my life" in 1962, the Fellow award of the IEEE, I learned afterwards that my students had made a drive to get me the award. I also learned that they were joined by one member of the faculty in their efforts. However, since I knew I was not a "favored son" of the majority of the department's senior faculty and was probably destined to remain an associate professor the rest of my life, I wasn't in a mood to settle down permanently.

When NASA offered me a temporary assignment as an "expert in space communications" in early 1962, I gladly accepted. Symptomatically, the request for sabbatical leave was rejected, so I left on a "leave of absence without pay" arranged by the dean's office.